Adopted grave of Major Melvin J. Robertson at Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, the Netherlands (Courtesy photo by George Deswijzen)

Bits of the Benelux: WWII Liberation remembrance marked by ceremonies, concert

Story by USAG Benelux Public Affairs

[Editor’s Note: The following story is the second in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany] 

USAG BENELUX-BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – September 1944 marked a momentous turning point for the Benelux community during World War II. Over the course of a few short weeks, the Allied forces swept across the region, liberating almost all of Belgium and the province of Limburg, the Netherlands, from Nazi Germany.

Today, 78 years later, the area’s residents are still extremely grateful to their liberators. As such, numerous commemoration events take place in towns across Belgium and the southern Netherlands during the month.

Liberation celebrations actually begin in late August in the Benelux region, with the annual “Tanks in Town” celebration in Mons, Belgium. Usually held the last weekend of the month, the event culminates in dozens of World War II tanks and vehicles parading through town and into the Grand Place (main square) as they follow the path the Allies took to liberate Mons on September 2, 1944.

Other events include memorial ceremonies at Cendron and Monceau-Imbrechies, Belgium, the first weekend in September to commemorate the first Belgian town liberated during the war, as well as those lost in the engagement.

While towns throughout the Benelux celebrate the liberation push, the commemoration event in Limburg, the Netherlands, is truly unique.

Since 2006, the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, the Netherlands, has hosted a Liberation Concert to honor its World War II legacy through music. This year, the concert begins at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 18, and is open for free to the public.

As the only American military cemetery in the Netherlands, the memorial serves as the final resting place of almost 8,300 U.S. Soldiers and Airmen who died during the war.

“Come to experience the best music in the Netherlands remembering…what these brave men and women did,” said George Deswijzen, project director for Foundation Tribute, Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.

The 17th edition of the concert aims to commemorate the memory of Soldiers who sacrificed their lives for freedom, and the family ties they held dear. These Soldiers chose to leave the security of their homes to fight in the war, and often left behind loved ones who never saw them again.

“[The] American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) strives to…honor the achievements of the U.S. Armed Forces by preserving their legacy of service, and by seeking new and innovative ways of reflecting the evolving nature of sacrifice,” said Jason Bordelon, ABMC Superintendent of the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.

“They came over and gave their lives. It’s very touching,” said Deswijzen. “I feel strongly that this is something we need to tell our children. We have to take care of our freedom.”

Deswijzen’s own grandfather fought in World War II and returned with many stories. In 1945, adoptions of the Margraten graves of fallen Soldiers began in Limburg, and his family signed up for two. Now, Deswijzen is raising his own children, the fourth generation, to care for the graves and understand the meaning of sacrifice.

Commander Amy McElroy, Executive Officer of U.S. Coast Guard Activities Europe, Brunssum, the Netherlands, attended last year’s concert and described her experience as emotional and inspiring.

“I think everybody should visit at least one American Cemetery in Limburg while they are here. The way people regard Service Members here is great,” she said. “That ultimate sacrifice, we take it for granted—what the people went through and our role in helping to liberate. It’s been 78 years and the intergenerational involvement is amazing.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liberation Concert could not continue in its normal fashion due to social-distancing restrictions. Livestreaming was made available via Facebook by the generous donation of the ABMC, which made the concert available for the first time to a worldwide audience.

This year, the cemetery is pleased to have full capacity available once again for the concert. Seat reservations are required ahead of time, but it is possible to attend the concert without a seat. The South Netherlands Philharmonic will take the stage in the 2022 musical tribute after national anthems and opening remarks.

The Philharmonic will perform five meaningful selections of musical expression during the concert. Aaron Copland’s “Letter from Home” unfolds the story of a homesick Soldier who receives a letter from a loved one. Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” is reminiscent of the unfinished life of the composer and the lives of the Soldiers who died too young. Antonin Dvorák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” depicts the unconditional love of a mother for her child. “Theme & Remembrances from Schindler’s List” will draw on emotions about self-sacrifice and care for kinsmen as shown in the movie “Schindler’s List.” Finally, the Philharmonic will perform “Unknown Territory” by Mark Pütz, who composed his piece specifically to express his gratitude for those buried in the cemetery.

“[The Liberation Concert] represents the unique partnership that the U.S. shares with the Netherlands, South Limburg, and the Liberation Concert Foundation,” said Bordelon. “I was deeply moved by last year’s commemorative performance and am very much looking forward to this year.”

For more information, seat reservations, and driving directions visit the Liberation Concert website.

This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.

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